This week is International Archives Week #IAW2021, time set aside by the International Council on Archives (ICA) to celebrate the founding of ICA in 1948. This year’s theme is #EmpoweringArchives. Today’s post comes from Bryan Cheeseboro, an archives technician at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The National Archives has created a short documentary Charles Sprout: A Civil War Soldier Revisited.
Archives technician Jesse Wilinski, who is also a volunteer at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, came across Sprout’s grave and wanted to know more about him. He teamed up with National Archives video producer John Heyn, who had been working from home during the pandemic and was looking for story ideas in his hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Wilinski researched military and pension records held by the National Archives, and the pair created the documentary that explores the life and death of Charles Sprout, a soldier in the United States Colored Troops (USCT).
Charles Sprout was born about 1842 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. He was enslaved by James Horace Lacey of Ellwood Manor. On the 1850 U.S. Census Slave Schedule, a nine-year old male is one of 32 people listed as enslaved to Horrace Lacy [sic].
It is unknown exactly what life was like for Sprout as an enslaved person, but the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park’s website describes life at Ellwood Manor (the house has survived) for enslaved people:
“[They] worked hundreds of acres of cultivated fields, harvesting grains, corn, fruits, and at times tobacco. They also made the yard of the house hum as they toiled in the outbuildings that surrounded the main house—the stables, barns, smokehouse, storehouses, and kitchen. Enslaved people had something to do with virtually every aspect of the function and appearance of a plantation. They created niceties that defined plantation hospitality: the pressed linens and tablecloths, the elegant dinners, the tidy gardens and walkways.”
It is also unknown exactly how Sprout found his way to freedom, but according to his pension file, he was a free man “on or before April 19, 1861.” He was a teamster (wagon driver) by profession. On December 12, 1863, exactly one year after the battle of Fredericksburg, he was enlisted for three years service into the 1st United States Colored Cavalry, a regiment that was organized at Fort Monroe, Virginia, that same month.
Besides the 1st, the 2nd Colored Cavalry and Battery “B,” 2nd Colored Light Artillery were organized at Fort Monroe that same winter. These three were the only USCT regiments organized at Fort Monroe during the war. Sprout’s physical description on his Compiled Military Service Records (CMSR) identifies him as being 5’ 7” tall, black complexion and hair, and black eyes. His CMSR, along with approximately 180,000 Compiled Military Service Records of the soldiers of the United States Colored Troops, have been digitized and are available online in the National Archives Catalog.
With the 1st Colored Cavalry, Sprout’s service, all in Virginia, included participation in the captures of Bermuda Hundred and City Point, the siege of Petersburg in the summer of 1864, and action at the battles of Baylor’s Farm on June 15 (as dismounted cavalry) and Deep Bottom on July 27–28. On June 10, 1865, after major Confederate army surrenders at Appomattox, Virginia, and Raleigh, North Carolina, the 1st USCC, part of the 25th Corps, Army of the James, was transferred to duty on the Rio Grande River to police the border as a measure against the ongoing civil war (a different conflict altogether) taking place in Mexico. The 1st served on the river and at various points in Texas until they were mustered out of service on February 4, 1866.
The United States’ victory over the Confederacy, military service in the U.S. Army, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments changed the lives of Black people—now citizens of the United States—more than they could have imagined. When Charles Sprout was enslaved at Ellwood Manor, did he ever think that one day he would be a cavalryman and a part of Union victory that helped bring about freedom to millions of enslaved people?
After mustering out, Sprout returned to Spotsylvania County. His postal address was Wilderness Tavern, where he was also employed. In the early 1890s, he applied for a pension for his military service, which he received. In his pension request, he claimed that he was “wholly unable to earn a support by manual labor by reason of rheumatism in [his] right side, leg and arm, a ‘ching’ in the back, heart trouble, injury to feet from frostbite[,] and deafness.” He made sure to indicate that his disabilities were “not due to vicious habits.”
In June 1897, Sprout married Fannie Hemp Warder. It was his first marriage, and the couple had no children. He died on February 13, 1926, and was buried at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Cemetery, where his remains rest to this day.